In Summary
  • Kintu is a book laced with deep examinations of the Luganda people’s conception of the soul, spirituality and psychology.
  • The title of her winning short story, 'Let’s Tell This Story Properly', neatly distills her quest. The determination by the feisty women in the story is perhaps reflective of Makumbi’s own mission to tell the true story of Africa — removed of the tropes of madness, abnormality and curses early explorers had ascribed to it.
  • The most interesting parts of the story are where characters depart from the ‘expected’ storyline and script. We for instance have Kayita who “was forty-five years old and should have pulled up his pants before he collapsed.” He also should have chosen any day other than Easter to die, we are told. Nnam rudely tosses out expletives to her older relatives as she makes it clear that she will not act out the part of the ‘good widow’.

The light blue jeans and checked shirt Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi is wearing give her the casual look of a housewife out shopping, or a mother on her way to pick her children from school.

But when the readers shuffle to her table at Kampala’s Garden City mall where she is signing books, she receives them with a dignified air, the silver streak in her cropped hair giving a regal tone to her appearance, as she graciously takes pictures and autographs the books.

Like an ancient Bugandan member of the Kabaka’s court, she is at ease with her recent weighty achievements, takes it all in her stride.

Having won the 2013 Kwani? Manuscript Project just in December for her novel manuscript, the published book was launched as part of the Writivism festival in Kampala on June 18.

Having been announced overall winner of the 2014 Commonwealth short story prize just a week before that, Makumbi is on a roll. “It feels quite exciting, like things are finally working for me. I feel vindicated, all the time I have spent writing looks like it is finally paying back.”

LUCKY STREAK

It is not surprising that though fairly new on the African writing scene, she is on a winning streak. Because, it is in her writing that you find her most intriguing side.

Rather than doddering housewives, Sunday school sermons, conventional wisdom and straight-laced dogmas, you instead encounter tales of madness, curses, incest, and the supernatural. Fanatical Christianity is satirised, traditional African spirituality is given space and presented as a thing of nobility.

Kintu is a book laced with deep examinations of the Luganda people’s conception of the soul, spirituality and psychology.

Given Makumbi’s penchant for flipping scripts, it is perhaps no coincidence that her writing journey began with her writing plays for her school and church at the age of 15. Born in Kampala in the late 1960s, living through the ups and downs of Uganda’s tumultuous politics did not leave her unscathed. Her father, a banker, lost his mind after an encounter with Idi Amin, where he was arrested and brutalised. Her mother having separated from him years earlier, Makumbi was brought up by her aunt. 

She is sombre as she talks about it. “My dad was this exceedingly handsome man; I was incapable of seeing anything wrong with him. So it was almost impossible to comprehend what had happened to him and believe it was him. He ended up as your typical mad man on the streets. To cope, I sort of shut it out.”

Unable to face the situation head on for a long time, it was only after she started re-reading the draft of what would later be published as Kintu that she realised that she had been subconsciously exploring the theme of madness and dealing with what had happened with her father, which was finally helping her face up to it.

The exploration was to lead her much further. “In the beginning, it started with mental health because of my father and then I noticed when I went to study in the UK, how Africa was being presented as a mad place. So this mental health is Uganda, Africa. It is about a family but also a tribe, a nation, a race.”

Kintu chronicles the lives and times of a family cursed by a Rwandan man for slapping and killing his child. Set in the 1750s, Makumbi explains that the timing and setting of the book were a reaction to being holed within a scripted theory that she did not think made sense. “I think it’s a backlash on post-colonial theory, realising how it limits us. If we are to be honest, post-colonial theory puts the spotlight on Europe and looks at Africa as if there was nothing before the Europeans. Take Europe out of the picture and that’s when you can look at and see Africa clearly.”

The author studied African literature at Manchester Metropolitan University then later went to Lancaster University where she did a PhD in Creative Writing, the outcome of her work being the prize winning manuscript later published as Kintu.

The title of her winning short story, 'Let’s Tell This Story Properly', neatly distills her quest. The determination by the feisty women in the story is perhaps reflective of Makumbi’s own mission to tell the true story of Africa — removed of the tropes of madness, abnormality and curses early explorers had ascribed to it.

Makumbi’s work is thus interested in setting the record straight, not for Europe in the sense of ‘writing back,’ but for ourselves as Africans, that we may know our true essence.

The most interesting parts of the story are where characters depart from the ‘expected’ storyline and script. We for instance have Kayita who “was forty-five years old and should have pulled up his pants before he collapsed.”

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